Cleaning

What is steel wool used for—and can it clean your mess?

A to-do or not-to-do list

Ball of coarse steel wool on a blue backdrop Credit: Getty Images / Stas_V

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When it comes to cleaning up your home, it may seem like there are endless tools, ingredients, and techniques for getting the best clean. But, sometimes, it’s best to stick to a classic—something simple that gets the job done.

Enter: Steel wool. This abrasive tool can remove built-up-grime and rust stains thanks to its collection of fine, sharp steel fibers that can range in width depending on the job you’ll need it for. Coarse steel wool is great for heavy-duty work, while fine steel wool will gently scrub and avoid any scratches from happening to the surface you’re cleaning.

With this said, proceed with caution. Steel wool is very abrasive, and it can cause irreversible scratch damage, so you should avoid certain surfaces like plastic or stainless steel at all costs.

If you’re unsure about the do’s and don’ts of steel wool, we’ve got the answers.

Here’s what steel wool can do

Clean up your grill

Grill
Credit: Getty Images / wakila

To clean the stainless steel exterior of your grill, use a specific stainless steel cleaner with a microfiber towel to remove any grease or fingerprints.

Steel wool is the perfect solution to stuck-on food and grease. Use steel wool on your grill’s grates to remove food with either degreasing dish soap or baking soda, depending on how tough the grime is. You may want to use a steel scrubbing brush to get to hard-to-reach crevasses and to also protect your hands from sharp rust.

You can also use steel wool on your oven or toaster oven grates. Just make sure to avoid using the steel wool on finished stainless steel surfaces, like the grill hood, knobs, or handle.

Remove scuffs from shoes and surfaces

Get your scuffed-up sneakers back in shape by using steel wool to brush away marks. Add warm water and dish soap to a steel wool scouring pad and scrub the stains, wiping the area with a clean towel once you’re finished.

You can also remove scuffs from vinyl surfaces or flooring by gently brushing it with a steel wool pad. Slowly apply a light amount of pressure and buff out the scuffs or spots.

Renovate or sand your wood surfaces

Wood
Credit: Getty Images / Gary Ombler

Using steel wool is also a great way to completely remove old paint from a wooden surface, making it easy to give new light to a dated piece of furniture.

Put the sandpaper away and pick up your steel wool to sand down wood surfaces. Make sure to use an extra-fine steel wool pad and carefully apply even pressure to the wood. This creates a softer texture to the wood.

You can also use this technique to distress or remove paint from wood, giving it a vintage, worn-down look.

If you have little ones in the house who’ve decided to take their artwork to a painted wall, don’t panic. You can use fine steel wool to remove pesky crayon marks—just use small, gentle circular motions with a dry steel wool pad.

Sharpen up your tools

Use steel wool to make gardening tools, like your pruning shears, or household necessities, like kitchen scissors, work like new. Detach your prunes or scissors, if possible, and gently clean with soap and water.

Dry off your tools then use coarse steel wool to remove any water spots, stains, or rust. Work the wool from the top to the bottom of the blades, slowly brushing it in one direction. You can hold the shears with a soft cloth or rag to keep yourself from accidentally cutting yourself.

Never use steel wool for these tasks

Don’t use it to clean pots and pans

Pots and pans
Credit: Getty Images / OlafSpeier

Steel wool pads are popularly used for cleaning many types of cookware—however, it is best to proceed with caution or avoid this, as this will create small scratches and abrasions over time.

Be careful with steel wool around your stainless steel pots and pans, along with your favorite cast iron pans.

Scrubbing stainless steel pans with steel wool is similar to scrubbing on any other stainless steel surface—you’re bound for deep scratches and damaged surfaces. While there are popular steel wool soap-infused pads on the market like S.O.S. Pads and Brillo Pads, we recommend proceeding with caution as they can create abrasions on your pots and pans.

To properly clean stainless steel cookware, follow along with our simple guide, using a water vinegar mixture.

Using steel wool on cast iron is a risky game—it can help to remove stubborn food, but you run the risk of damaging the cast iron and ruining the seasoned cast-iron seal.

Contrary to the belief that cast iron skillets are difficult to clean and maintain, you can just use gentle materials like warm water and soap and a soft sponge to get the job done.

If you need to scrub off tough bits of food, we recommend using coarse sea salt and gently rubbing it against the baked-on grime.

Don’t scrub food surface plastic

Don’t use steel wool on plastic surfaces or food storage containers—these will easily scratch up and make for breeding grounds for food stains and bacteria. For cleaning these bins, stick with warm soap and water.

For targeting tough stains, try using diluted white vinegar and let your containers soak for a few hours. From there, use warm soap and water to clean and let it air dry.

If the plastic container is meant to be disposable, you may just want to toss it.

Don’t swipe it across finished kitchen appliances

Finished kitchen appliances like stainless steel fridges and ovens should not be scrubbed with steel wool. While you can use very fine grade steel wool at your own risk, the steel wool pad can easily cause unwanted abrasion that makes for a less-than-attractive, scratched-up appearance.

Instead of using steel wool to clean your stainless steel appliances, use a water and baking soda combination or Bar Keeper’s Friend Stainless Steel Cleaner & Polish to create a paste, then apply to any rust or heavily-soiled stains. Rub the paste in with a cloth and go with the grain of the steel. Rinse with water and use a soft cloth to dry.

Keep steel wool out of the bathroom entirely

Bathroom
Credit: Getty Images / BrianAJackson

With materials like porcelain and glass in the bathroom, it's best to avoid steel wool pads as they can leave scratches behind.

While you may be looking to get a deep clean in your bathroom, steel wool should never be your go-to tool. Using steel wool on your faucet, shower head, bathtub, or toilet bowl can result in permanent scratches and damages.

For cleaning your shower and bathtub, use a couple drops of tea tree oil and all-purpose bathroom cleaner to remove and prevent mold and mildew. Use a scrubbing brush with these ingredients to work out any grime and stains.

For cleaning your toilet bowl, let vinegar and baking soda soak in the bowl, then use a toilet brush to work at tough stains.

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